Jim Holland joined BARCC’s Survivor Speakers Bureau about five years ago. He’s since shared his story of surviving childhood sexual assault with groups of high school students, parents, and a Division I champion hockey team, among many others.
“I wanted to give something back to BARCC,” Holland said, recalling how dramatically his life changed after he enrolled in both individual counseling and a men’s support group at the organization in 2009.
“By the time I joined the Survivors Speakers Bureau three or four years later, I was in a totally different place,” he said. “I mean, totally. I felt different. I looked different. I carried myself differently. I never forgot the help that BARCC provided me to help me to a much better place and a much better space, and I definitely want to pay that forward.”
BARCC has provided services to male victims and survivors of sexual assault for 20 years, addressing their unique needs with specialized programming including male-only group counseling, individual counseling, and supporting male survivors of prison rape who remain incarcerated.
Research shows that about one in six men have been victims of sexual violence at some point in their lives, compared with about one in three women.
While sexual assault is traumatic to victims regardless of gender, male victims often respond to, and heal from, the experience differently because of entrenched societal gender norms and their own perceptions of masculinity. For example, as BARCC Executive Director Gina Scaramella recently told the Boston Globe, men do not typically think they could be at risk of being assaulted and thus believe if happens to them, they are “less than a man.”
Stigma and shame around feeling “less than,” factor into why men tend to wait much longer before disclosing their victimization or seeking help. Male Survivor, a national organization dedicated to helping men heal from sexual violence, puts the average length of time before a male reports sexual assault at 20 years. Holland, for example, was assaulted as a child, but did not seek treatment until 30 years later.
“With male survivors there's definitely an extra set of issues that you have to deal with in terms of not wanting to tell your family and not dealing with your emotions,” Holland said. “You’re supposed to be strong, so how could you let somebody overpower you like that? Things along those lines are a little more specific to a man who has been sexually assaulted.”
Because men are often socialized to be less vulnerable and forthcoming about their feelings, BARCC therapists are specially trained to work with male survivors.
Holland, who had a failed experience in individual therapy 10 years before seeking our services, credited his BARCC therapist with always “holding my feet to the fire.”
“What I mean by that is, if I was asked a question, in typical guy form I’d dance around the question without answering it,” said Holland. “She would bring me right back and basically say, ‘Look, you need to do this. If you're ever going to move forward you need to deal with the emotions and the feelings and everything that you pushed down for the last 30 years. You need to deal with it at some point.”
Though BARCC had offered services to male survivors since 1998, the organization launched an outreach and awareness campaign in the early 2000s, after the Catholic clergy sexual abuse scandal brought the issue of childhood sexual abuse—particularly among boys—to the fore of public consciousness, prompting a spike in calls to BARCC from male survivors.
As part of that effort, Dave Shannon, a therapist who works with sexual assault survivors, created a brochure and a poster aimed at making male survivors more comfortable with reaching out for help. BARCC also teamed up with Fenway Community Health Center to run a male survivor group and with other community organizations and institutions to do educational workshops and presentations aimed at raising awareness about services for male victims and survivors. It was critical work given that public discussion about sexual assault focused almost exclusively on female victims and survivors. BARCC needed to make clear that not only did it serve men, but that staff members—even if they were women—were equipped work with them.
“Men—not exclusively, but a lot of men—need to see themselves reflected in organizations that serve survivors,” said Dave. “They often need to go someplace where they see people like them. That's why BARCC created this program back then and one of the main goals was to develop materials that spoke to men and their experiences and all the ways that men's bodies might respond during abuse that is confusing to them and confusing to other people.”